Mr Dickens and Mr Allen Poe may well have attracted a class-divide of drool-mouthed admirers to readings and signings in their respective days, but those days are no more. Consider these two points: first, the work of a nineteenth century writer such as they would be serialised, pre-published or solely published in some public press (in Virginia perhaps) and accessible to positively scores of folk, thus rendering them absolutely celebrities. Second, some persons, being as poor as a journalist or as illiterate as a journalist, may have to attend some public oration to get their fill of saucy, poor-boy-done-not-so-shabby social comment tales or spook stories. All meaning that Mr Dickens could pack any auditorium to the eyeballs.
And so the distance between literary figure and celebrity superstar grows. Today, one is more likely to see a Daily Mail serialisation of some shamed politician’s excuses than an examination of current conditions and social disgraces strung out in blank prose. If the reading public wants such, they must go out and trawl a book shop and several hundred pages – too much work, that!
And so, thirty years after producing anything with a hint of relevance, Mr Sykes CBE still hooks in more punters than Mr Gombrowicz and Mr Remarque could have, combined.
“He’s an icon,” Sandra, the middle-aged lady before me in the queue, affirms. “They don’t make them like him anymore.”
The throng of people, unprecedented in Belfast’s sole chain bookstore, seem to verify this. Winding their way back through the Irish literature and local interest section, they reveal a wide spread of ages (middle-age spread for the most part), although not a soul under forty. There are even octogenarians hiding their greyed follicles beneath Mr Cooper style fezzes, each one clasping a copy of Mr Sykes CBE’s new hardback.
Sandra lets me leaf through hers after I admit to not having one of my own. I tell her that I don’t want to spend sixteen pounds on a book I will only read if I get stuck in a lift between its purchase and returning to my bookshelves at home.
“It’s a bit surreal,” she says. “Your joining a queue just to soak up the atmosphere. It’s like something Eric would do.”
I didn’t know it was. “I was watching Have I Got News For You last night and, y’know, they’re afraid to say anything after what’s happened (the bombings of July 7th, I would presume). Back in Eric’s day, they could say whatever they liked. He was brave.” I consider the moral courage required to stretch a single sketch about a plank out to forty-five minutes. I have to agree with her.
As I thumb through the thick, clean pages, I am reminded of all the comedy greats he has worked with (Ms Jacques, Mr Milligan et al). I look up, passed the crowd, to the huddled husk, trench-coated and smiling cordially as he signs. Then down again at the photographs in the book. Here he is young and, in one or two, unimaginably handsome. One particular image shows he and Ms Jacques waving gleefully to fans from an open-top car, like a comic Mr Kennedy and Ms O.
“What will you say to him?” I ask Sandra.
“I don’t know. Tell him he’s amused me, I guess. That he’s had an effect on my life.” With this she looks down at the book in my hands. “He was good-looking, wasn’t he?”
“Matinee-idol features,” I reply.
A manager then announces that all copies of the book have now been sold out, not only here but in the two major newsagents in the city centre. Still people join the end of the queue, clutching to their breasts texts about British comedy, comedy, Britishness and anything else tangentially related. Sandra’s copy is somewhat tarnished around the dustcover (imagine the mess if that hadn’t been there) and hopes they have a spare somewhere.
“He looks like you,” she says as we pass a stall of Irish dramas. She is pointing at a book I don’t look much like, by Mr Kavanagh to be honest. “I’ve never heard of him,” she admits, “but you could be like him someday, a great writer.”
“I’ll try and avoid the alcoholism and lawsuits, I think.”
Looking at Mr Kavanagh looking at me from the bookcover and then Mr Behan and Mr O’Casey, I wonder if such a rapturous and fawning turnout would have turned out for them. “Probably not,” says Sandra. “I had to come down today though. I should be at home baking a cake for my daughter; she’s coming home from England. But when I saw him on the TV last night “(promoting his promotion) “I knew I just had to come down.”
As we approach the head of the line, I slip to the side, not wanting to make too much of a fool of myself. Sandra doesn’t tell Mr Sykes CBE of the effect he has had on her life, rather she tells him that he was once very handsome and that he should have been in movies. “He was,” cheers a man in a silly hat, helpfully. “He was in Harry Potter.”
Mr Sykes CBE, deaf as a pillar, grins happily and stares through his lensless black-rimmed glasses (they are for conducting sound), but says nothing. To my left I overhear someone make the most stultifying dull comment of my lifetime: “It will make a good present for someone. If they’re an Eric Sykes fan.”
At the check-out, waiting to pay for her book, Sandra asks me whether or not it was sound to have Mr Sykes CBE personalise his efforts. It may, she observes, lower the asking price should she sell it, or if she leaves it to the children in her will. I tell her that there is nothing I love more than when, scouring second-hand bookshops, I find a personal inscription, so I may wonder under what circumstances Sandra met Eric Sykes (whoever he is) generally somewhere more interesting than a branded bookstore, in line with a bunch of icon-worshippers (Greek Orthodox all) and talking to a drunk who looks like Mr Kavanagh.
“That’s a novel approach, Henry,” she says, mistaking my Henry Cow pin badge for a name tag.
It is then that I witness the charm the rest of the crowd remember from thirty years previous. Mr Sykes CBE, still trench-coated and lensless-spectacled, is being ushered away by his womanly manager, through two lines of old ladies. Each one is delicately taken by the hand, then, with the first animation I’ve seen all afternoon, he raises his other hand in salute. “Goodbye, my little chickens. Until next time,” he says, more convinced than the rest of us that there will be a next time. He is soon on the high street, lost amidst a sea of other elderly gents in trench-coats and black-rimmed glasses.
I move outside to join those over-worked staff who are rewarding themselves with well-deserved cigarettes. A gentleman and his wife are marching hurriedly passed, when he stops, turns and looks into the shop. “O yes. Spike Milligan is doing a book-signing in there today.” At least he got the profession right.